Most family historians have THAT box. The box always looks roughly the same. It’s the box that belonged to the toaster your mother had three toasters ago. Or, maybe it’s a shoebox for a pair of long-lost boat shoes from Thom McAn or a gift box from Anderson Little (remember them?). Maybe it’s a bag from a now-defunct department store like Stuarts or Caldor. Not long after I took up genealogy in 1988, I began inheriting boxes and bags like those, and they all had lots of photographs – old ones. There were some color photographs from the 60’s and 70’s, black-and-white photographs from the 40’s and 50’s, and older sepia-colored photographs beneath those.
The photographs from the latter half of the 20th century are easiest to identify. Most times, I know the subject; if not, the bell-bottoms or dark wall paneling scream 1974 . . . and a well-placed beehive will strongly suggest the decade before that. And, once you have an approximate date, it’s fairly simple to deduce that you’re staring at your second-cousin, or Uncle Freddy as a kid, or maybe you’ve uncovered that long-lost great-aunt no one has mentioned since Thanksgiving 1981.
As you move back in time, what gets harder to identify are the black-and-white photographs. Some have dates printed along their white borders; others have dates stamped on the back. It’s usually pretty easy to pick out grandparents as parents and parents as children. Great-grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles can also be identified, if not on sight, then by context.
Then, you get to the most interesting photographs – the tintypes, the cabinet cards, and the carte-de-visite (CDV) photographs. These are the photographs you wish you had had when your grandparents were alive to see them. Sometimes, you can pick out some family resemblances and these provide valuable hints. Sometimes, you get really lucky and someone, long ago, labelled the photographs for posterity. That usually doesn’t happen.
So, what do you do? In 1990 or so, I got a stack of tintypes (one appears above, to the left) from an aunt, who had gotten them from my grandmother 20 years earlier. My Aunt had no idea who they were, and the small length of ancient string that had long kept them together wasn’t talking either. At the time, I knew they were old – probably 19th century, but wasn’t really sure how to proceed. I had researched some genealogy at that point and knew that that branch of the family had come to Lowell in 1869 from Manchester, England. I also knew that tintypes like the one above spanned a fairly wide range of years, from 1852 to about 1905 or so. So, I knew that the photograph could be either English or American and that the woman could be an ancestor from any one of three generations. That wasn’t very helpful in helping me identify her.
I looked for more clues. The photograph, like lots of others in the 19th century, was obviously taken in a studio – the odd tree-trunk-looking thing and the landscape backdrop weren’t going to fool me. But, tintypes don’t carry photographers’ marks. I guessed the woman’s age to be between 30 and 35, and she appeared to be wearing a ring on her right hand, along with a bracelet, necklace, and earrings. With a range of 1852-1905 for the photograph, though, I still needed more clues to determine her identity. Enter fashion.
It’s pretty easy to date photographs from the late 20th century, if you spend a moment studying what people are wearing, or how they’ve fixed their hair. The same can be said for the 19th century. The woman in the photograph wears a dress of a common pattern known as “windowpane check”; its sleeves are the easiest indicator of a date on the early side of 1890 – the tight sleeves begin precisely at the shoulder’s tip and portray none of the exaggerated fullness that the rather well-remembered leg-of-mutton sleeves would become known for as the 1890’s wore on. Her hair is another indicator of the late 1880’s. The bangs aren’t cut short or styled in the large curls popular in the earlier part of the 1880’s. Instead, she wears her bangs in a style more prevalent right around 1890.
So, a quick study of fashion can get me a guess of, say, 1890, or so, but what if she wasn’t so well-to-do, and if her dress or hair was out of fashion at the time of the photograph? I still see people trying to sport haircuts from the early 1990’s. I needed a little more confirmation before I set about looking for women born around 1855 in my family tree.
I looked at the other photographs, and came across this one, in a different box. I recognized the background immediately – the bridge, the mountains. And, that same shaggy carpet is on the studio’s floor. I put the two photographs next to each and decided I had a match. Both photographs came from the same studio, most likely. I was even ready to assume they had been taken on the same day. Why? If you look very closely at the first photograph, above, you’ll notice in the extreme lower-right corner, the same chair that the child in the photograph at the right is sitting on. The photographer didn’t quite succeed in moving it out of the picture. So, the woman from 1888 had a two-year-old child. But, I still hadn’t solved the mystery of where the photograph had been taken. From what I knew about the branch of the family, the most likely choices were Lowell, Massachusetts or Manchester, England. Of course, there was a chance that the photograph could’ve been taken somewhere else entirely.
That’s when I found this carte-de-visite (CDV) photograph, at left. Do you recognize the background? I did too. That’s even the same chair. This game of matching was paying off. On the back of the CDV was the photographer’s mark (right), which can be used to help date a photograph too. Armed with a set of city directories, I quickly determined that the photographer, Napoleon Loupret was at 51 Central Street in Lowell, Massachusetts from 1885 to 1893. Bingo – I had a probable date (1888 or so) and a city (Lowell, Massachusetts). I also knew that I had a family, a woman, who was about 30 or so, who had children, born sometime between 1882 and 1890.
When I first started researching this photograph, I had a hunch that the woman was my second-great-grandmother, and that the children were my great-grandmother and her older brother. The age differences were just about right. But – once I narrowed the date range to 1885-1893, and later to about 1890 – the ages no longer worked. My great-grandmother was the youngest of her family, but born early enough that she would have been 12 at the time of the photographs, not 2 or 3 as the children pictured clearly are. So, the search continues, and the mystery remains unsolved, but when I do uncover and add a woman to my family tree who was born around 1855, with children born in the late 1880’s, I’ll already have photographs that just may show what she looked like in life.
- Dating Old Photographs – The Price of Tea in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1917 (forgottennewengland.com)